As someone creating films or studying film theory, you know how important the plot of a story is to the overall narrative of a film, television show, or screenplay.
But what is the definition of the plot in a movie?
In short, the plot is what happens in a film, i.e., the narrative sequence of events that determine the outcome of the characters. Thus, movie plots are events that happen in sequence to show a cause and effect.
“So there’s this character, and they start at point A and because of B ends up at point C, but since they decided to do D, they wind up at E and then are forced to do F, but ultimately, their decision leads them to G.”
The plot is the story’s driving force, and the best plots are driven by characters making tough decisions to achieve a goal, all while overcoming obstacle after obstacle to get there.
We’ll briefly review the meaning of the plot in a movie, some of the major plot points of famous movies and TV shows, and why the plot is important.
We’ll also discuss how story structure creates and shapes the plot and how to best think about the plot and plot device when creating your own stories.
Let’s dive in!
Why do stories need plots?
Stories need plots because the plot is what happens in a story. Without a plot, nothing would happen, and thus there would be no story.
While the story in a movie tells us why and how something happens, the plot is what happens.
Stories help us structure and understand the world around us, and it’s through following a chain of events (i.e., plot) and how events affect changes in characters that we learn about others and ourselves.
Plots also help the audience of a story understand themes and characters. We can piece together complex ideas or concepts by following a plot and watching cause and effect in action.
Seeing a person act a certain way and watching how those actions affect others teaches us about character.
Likewise, observing events and their aftermath can also teach us specific themes, like the power of love, the evil of greed, or the silliness of miscommunication.
Plots also need to make logical sense to feel connected.
A series of scenes only follows a narrative plot if they are connected in some way.
Because the storytelling of movies is so focused on what comes next, on-screen actions must cause reactions, or there would be no way to track change over time (i.e., story).
What makes a great plot?
The best movies are those that have “great” plots, but what makes a great plot?
Great plots feel great to us usually for two reasons: each plot point logically leads to the next while also surprising and delighting the viewer along the way.
Great plots feature characters making choices towards a specific goal and show the effects of those choices, creating chain reactions that raise the stakes every time new decisions are made.
Great plots include rising action that leads the characters (and the audience) to a perceived outcome until a turning point where what we thought was about to happen shifts us in a new direction (and new situation).
These turning points are also known as plot twists. The best plots provide multiple twists and turns, so long as the shifts feel set up and earned every time.
Towards the middle of a great story, there is usually a point of no return.
Depending on the story’s narrative structure, there could be multiple points of no return, but this usually comes after the midpoint, where the protagonist gets a version of what they want.
However, the story is still not over because something is still missing.
The main conflict has not been resolved. Some difficult task remains to be overcome; in some stories, this is an external obstacle; in others, it’s an internal one (you got what you want, not what you need).
This leads the main protagonist to a “lowest moment” or low point in the second half, where a major setback makes it seem like all hope is lost and there’s no way for the characters to achieve their goal.
Great plots also feature plants and payoffs, where plot points that seem unimportant early on come back towards the end with great importance.
These plot devices help avoid the curse of the deus ex machina, or “God in the machine,” where divine intervention comes out of nowhere to save the day at the story’s climax.
This is a famous plot device of ancient Greek theater, but it feels incredibly unsatisfying to the viewer because it’s not set up. The best plants are set up early (usually in the first 20 minutes of the first act).
Finally, after the climax, a falling action leads to a resolution. This resolution of the plot e plot does not have to be a happy ending; many of the best plots are not.
But it has to feel earned, or set up in a way that feels like this moment is the only conclusion of everything that came before. Put another way; it has to feel satisfying.
For a plot to feel satisfying, it must ultimately arrive at some point, be it a thematic happening, character growth moment, emotional catharsis, or relieving of tension, that feels meaningful to the viewer.
A satisfying plot must also be conclusive in that at the end of the story, the series of events that led to this moment feels wrapped up with no loose ends.
There should be no more lingering unanswered questions in the viewer’s mind, also known as plot holes.
If they do exist, they should come much later (what the Pixar writer and director Andrew Stanton calls “refrigerator questions” in that you think of them as you open the refrigerator an hour or two after the movie).
But above all, the most important thing the plot of a story must do is feel meaningful.
A good plot feels satisfactory, but a great plot feels important.
After experiencing great stories, at the end of the film, the viewer not only had a good time but feels the experience was worth the time invested.
Maybe they learned something. Maybe their perspective was changed. Maybe they feel renewed.
Maybe they can’t stop talking or thinking about it. And that is a telltale sign of a great plot.
Do all stories need a plot?
Technically yes; all stories need plots to be considered stories.
However, many stories that seem like they don’t have plots, like where nothing happens, or no one seems to change, still follow a narrative chain of events in one way or another.
It could be the plot is, at worst thin or, at best, focused on smaller details with much less at stake. But look hard enough, and you’ll see the basic plot structures in every good story.
What we traditionally think of as a plot tends to bleed over how we define story structure.
How story structure creates and shapes a plot.
Story structure is best defined as the skeletal backbone of a plot that shapes the story.
Instead of a random string of events affecting a random string of characters endlessly for two hours, story structure guides certain plot points to happen at certain moments in a story, shaping the story into some narrative arc.
This isn’t just chronological order but some basic structure that organizes the story into the format most familiar to the audience.
This can be accomplished in different ways. There are different framing techniques for defining the story structure of your story.
The most common framing device is the three-act structure, dividing your story into the beginning of the story, middle, and end.
Another famous structural device is the five-act structure, which Shakespeare used to write most of his plays.
As a beginning screenwriter, you will need more help than that.
Beyond how many “acts” your story has, you can use structure to define a story’s ebbs and flows with different structural framing techniques.
In screenwriting, some of the most famous ones include:
- The eight-sequence method, where you divide up your story into eight mini-arcs called sequences.
- The save the cat method, where you hone your plot to follow a particular, page-by-page beat sheet for when each plot point should happen in a script
- The story circle method, where you write your story to hit eight basic plot points guided by “the story circle” by Dan Harmon.
…And plenty more than that out there as well. I’ve covered how to use all three of these in How To Write A Screenplay That Works.
Some methods follow less traditionally linear storytelling, such as telling a story’s plot points out of order or telling the whole story backward or from multiple perspectives to reveal new information each time (the Rashomon method).
Each structural framing method is useful for helping writers frame their plots, and as you can see from the above, they vary in detail. If you look at a basic plot diagram, you’ll see only six components to a complete plot.
But to a newer writer working on their first film script, it might be helpful to follow something like the Save the Cat beat sheet to hyper-specify what page number each plot point should happen at.
To more experienced writers, something like the sequence or story circle methods can be helpful guiding principles for their plot work, so their stories flow positively without caging them in.
And, of course, breaking free from traditional narrative story structure methods can appeal to veteran writers who know how to wield audience expectations against us to weave a thoroughly enjoyable story that surprises and amazes without getting too convoluted.
Before breaking the rules, you must know what they are. Even better if you know them by heart!
How should you think about plot when creating your own stories?
Story structure methods aside, when creating the plot of your stories, it’s important to think of the plot as actions and reactions.
Put another way, remove the concept of “and then” from your writing and instead focus on “because.”
South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone refer to it this way – think in “buts” and “therefores”…
As Parker and Stone recommend, don’t think of plot as, “this happens and then this happens” but instead think in terms of “this happens, therefore, this happens” or “this happens, but this happens, therefore this happens.”
This simple narrative technique breaks the plot down into decisions, actions, and consequences.
Almost every story begins with an inciting action that draws the main character out of their normal world.
This inciting incident drives them to a decision to pursue a goal (either internal or external)—that decision results in an action, and that action results in a consequence.
If you map out the plot of your story with decisions, actions, and consequences in mind, your storytelling will work on some level, no matter what the details may be.
That’s because everything that happens happens for a specific reason, justifying it as valid in the eyes of the viewer.
Example: Your main character is an air traffic controller slumping through another normal day at work when a terrorist group decides to hijack the air traffic tower (inciting incident).
Tasked with a decision to give in to the terrorist’s demands or try to fight back and save two planes full of people from ramming into each other, the hero decides to push one of the terrorists out the control tower window – an action.
However, that action leads the other terrorist to throw the hero out of the window, too – a consequence!
Now the hero is left dangling from a ledge and must try to find a way to scale back up the tower without falling to their death – oh, and somehow disarm three more armed terrorists before the planes in question get close enough to run into each other.
Now that’s a plot!
Putting it all in context – famous plots broken down
Let’s put everything we just learned into context.
Whether you’re writing a horror movie, a murder mystery, a coming-of-age story, a romantic comedy, an action adventure, or anything in between, you can apply the rules above.
A good exercise is to try to map out the plot of popular movies (or every movie you watch) to see how they adhere to (or stray from) classic storytelling plot conventions.
Every story is told in a slightly different way which makes it unique. You can learn how to write your own unique story by studying that uniqueness.
Let’s begin with one of the most classic storytelling genres: the coming-of-age story. Two films fit this mold better than any other: Star Wars and the Lion King.
The plot in Star Wars explained
In Star Wars, a young boy named Luke Skywalker buys two droids. The resulting consequence of this action is that he intercepts a message from a Princess in need, a message meant for a hermit he knows named Ben Kenobi.
He then decides to give the message to Kenobi; as a consequence, Kenobi tells him about his father and Darth Vader. Another consequence of his initial decision to buy the droids?
The evil empire tracks them down to his Aunt and Uncle’s house and kills them.
Now Luke has a point of no return and decides to go with the droids on a quest to rescue the Princess with Kenobi.
But they need a ship to get off the planet, so they decide to cut a deal with the roguish bad boy Han Solo.
Consequently, Solo and his partner Chewbacca have pulled along for the ride, making their own decision to join in.
All the key characters then sneak aboard the Empire’s secret base, known as the Death Star, and track down Princess Leia, a type of midpoint as they’ve found the princess.
After the decision to escape through the trash chute, the consequence is narrowly escaping death by trash compactor.
Finally, Obi-Wan Kenobi faces Darth Vader, and at a low point for Luke, Ben (the last remnant of his old life) is killed.
As a consequence of Obi-Wan’s decision to sacrifice himself, the team can escape and regroup at the rebel base, where they can make a final decision for a climactic showdown between the good guy and bad guys, leading to a falling action where the death star is destroyed.
Luke finishes his transformation from a boy into a newly made hero.
The plot in The Lion King explained
In The Lion King, a young prince named Simba, who doesn’t take his role as future king seriously, makes a naive decision to disobey his father’s wishes and trust his scheming uncle.
The Uncle then makes the decision to take advantage of King Mufasa’s love for his son Simba and Simba’s naive trust in him and stages a plot to kill Mufasa and take the throne.
Consequently, Simba believes he is responsible for his father’s death and outcasts himself to live in a nearby oasis, completely abstaining from his princely responsibilities.
As a consequence of this choice, his friend Nala eventually ventures into his oasis and finds him living a life of “Hakuna Matata” (no worries), and challenges him with the consequences of his actions: his homeland has become destroyed by his evil Uncle while he wastes away his days.
As the love story of his feelings for Nala grows, he realizes to come of age, he must return home.
Faced with a choice to confront his responsibility or ignore it forever, he returns home. He claims his birthright, the consequences of which are his final confrontation with his Uncle at the climax of the story. Ultimately, he transforms from a naive prince afraid of his responsibility to becoming king.
The plot in The Wizard of Oz explained
Now let’s apply the same rules to a horror movie. I know a particularly horrifying one called The Wizard of Oz.
In it, a young woman named Dorothy lives on a farm in Kansas with her dog Toto. But when Dorothy decides to defend Toto against a rich woman who wants the dog put down for biting her, Dorothy decides to run away from home.
This action causes her aunt to become heartbroken.
Right when she tries to return home, she is captured by a giant tornado and thrust into a horrific nightmare land full of witches, living scarecrows, heartless robots, ferocious lions, flying monkeys, and manipulative wizards.
Throughout this horror, Dorothy must constantly face her fears along the yellow brick road; however, she gains new powers and allies along the way.
Each decision she makes to be brave has a positive reaction as she overcomes obstacle after obstacle. In Dorothy’s case, her good nature changes those around her for the rest of the film and empowers her to finally reach her external goal and find her way back home.
It’s worth mentioning that The Wizard of Oz is a coming-of-age story, but many horror films (such as those made by Alfred Hitchcock) follow the same action-reaction-consequence plot model.
The plot in The Lion King explained
Let’s analyze two more: a murder mystery called Harry Potter and a heartfelt Christmas movie called Die Hard.
In the Harry Potter franchise, a young boy named Harry decides to trust in a series of letters inviting him to a school for Wizards and Witchcraft despite his cruel family’s attempts to keep them from him.
As a result, a giant named Hagrid tracks them down and offers Harry the choice to come with him to the school called Hogwarts.
Harry agrees, and as a consequence, on his way to the school, he discovers a secret that an evil wizard killed his parents that he killed as a baby.
As a result of this realization of his newfound celebrity, he decides to trust two spunky outcasts instead of the popular kids.
And as weird events start happening at the school after his arrival, he decides to track down what at first seems like a series of strange coincidences that all seem to be following him.
These decisions lead him deeper into a maze revealed to be a trap set by the notorious killer of his parents to escape death (and get revenge on Harry) in the process.
But Harry’s decision to believe in his love of his parents ultimately saves him from the killer and helps him expose the murderer – this time, anyway.
The plot in The Lion King explained
In the holiday film Die Hard, working husband John McClain is having marital problems with his wife Holly, who moved to Los Angeles for a job, and the future of their marriage seems at risk.
So John decides to fly out to LA and crash his wife’s holiday party to rekindle his relationship.
Consequently, he is the only qualified person to save the day when terrorists take over the building. Over a series of narrow escapes, John begins to be moved by the fight for his life.
In the lowest moment with shards of glass in his feet, stuck in an air vent, he realizes the problem behind his marital problems stems from his obsession with work and lack of ability to say sorry and apologize for his actions.
In the spirit of Christmas, he apologizes to his wife; consequently, the terrorists realize she is the key to stopping McClaine.
But through clever deception, John can best the lead terrorist Hans Gruber by letting go of material value (a gold wristwatch his wife wears).
As a consequence of unclasping the watch, the watch (and Gruber) fall to their demise.
And in the true meaning of Christmas, McClaine and Holly gained the best gift of all: each other.
Parting tip – consequences are always better than coincidence.
The element of surprise is an important tool in every writer’s toolbox, but consequences are always more satisfying than coincidences.
A good rule of thumb for any strong plot is never to include more than one coincidence of importance in your story if you can avoid it.
Instead, focus your creativity on how choices your characters make cause consequences for them that you can plant early and pay off later down the line.
If you do this throughout your story, you’ll create a satisfying and surprising plot for your viewers that keeps them guessing while connecting the dots.